Euan McColm: Labour council catastrophe looms

Kezia Dugdale will not be able to hold Corbynistas at bay for long. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Kezia Dugdale will not be able to hold Corbynistas at bay for long. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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‘IF YOU think this year was bad for us,” a senior Scottish Labour Party figure told me, “then wait until next year. It’s going to be even worse.”

It is not easy these days to find an optimistic Labour politician. Brutal experience has prepared the party for the worst. After Labour lost all but one of its Scottish MPs in May’s general election, expectations for the 2016 Holyrood election are low.

As nails in coffins go, the loss of Glasgow to the SNP will be a long and sharp one for Labour

Euan McColm

And who could blame those Labour MSPs now bracing themselves for humiliation in the Scottish Parliament elections? The SNP’s dominance of politics in Scotland – more then half of voters intend to vote for the nationalists next May – endures, and Labour is bracing itself for the expected loss of all of its constituency seats. If it weren’t for the regional lists from which 56 of Holyrood’s 129 MSPs are elected through a proportional representation voting system, Labour would be unlikely to have any presence at all.

But if Scottish Labour thinks 2016 is going to be bad, 2017 will be even worse. The year after next will – unless some miracle occurs – mean a new low for a party that, less than a decade ago, was believed to have Scotland all wrapped up.

The coming Holyrood election will be a tough one for Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. Her priority in the aftermath will be to hold on to her job.

There are supporters of Labour’s UK leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who would happily see Dugdale removed. Lothian MSP Neil Findlay, who ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland, is already being touted by some as the Scottish party’s leader-in-waiting.

It would, I think, be a mistake for members to move against Dugdale. She is the party’s finest asset right now, and the inevitable defeat in May will not be a reflection on her but simply more evidence of the breakdown in the relationship between Labour and Scottish voters.

If the rules are to be that electoral defeat leads inevitably to the replacement of the party’s leader then Labour will be looking for yet another figurehead in 2017 after Scotland’s council elections.

Local government elections don’t, generally, generate a great deal of interest. Turn-out is traditionally low and the results largely unremarked upon.

But the effect of defeat in 2017 for Labour will last for a long time.

There will be the symbolism, of course, of the loss of Glasgow City Council. The SNP spun hard in 2012 that it was going to take control of Scotland’s largest city, but Labour held on with a much reduced ­majority. Nobody with a shred of sense in either the SNP or Labour believes that the council will not, in 2017, fall into the hands of the nationalists.

As nails in coffins go, the loss of Glasgow to the SNP will be a long and sharp one for Labour.

Frank McAveety – the former Labour MSP who now leads the council – has 16 months to turn things around. He will not do so.

The loss of Glasgow – and the rise SNP dominance in councils across the country – will mean more than humiliation for Labour. It will have a devastating effect on the party’s grassroots, such as they are.

Local councillors, and those who support them in local constituency parties, currently provide an activist base that’s keeping Scottish Labour afloat. Many of its big hitters at Westminster and Holyrood may have been defeated in recent years but so long as there was a deep and wide activist base, Labour could be expected to put up a decent fight in elections. When councillors start losing their seats in great numbers, the knock-on effect will be that more members drift from the party.

Elected politicians – whether MPs, MSPs, or councillors – bring with them networks of activists (some of whom enjoy considerable patronage) and defeat in the polls will atomise those groups.

Those who remain, it is reasonable to suggest, will be the hard-line ­Corbynistas who believe that Labour’s way back is through a manifesto of decidedly left-wing policies of the sort that have been rejected by voters – in both Scotland and England – for decades.

Nobody could doubt the enthusiasm and self-belief of those activists, but with the SNP riding high on ­policies pitched at the centre ground (is there any chance, at all, that 2016 might see the end of the ludicrous canard that the SNP is a socialist party?) the possibility that a Corbynista Scottish Labour Party might regain the upper hand can be dismissed.

Labour politicians clinging to the hope a new UK leader might emerge to take over from Corbyn must come to terms with the fact that the rot is now running so deep that any such successor would have a much reduced activist base in Scotland on which to depend.

One of Dugdale’s smartest moves on becoming leader of her party this year was her decision to prevent johnny-come-lately members, caught up in Corbyn-mania from having a say in the selection and ranking of candidates for the May election.

But Dugdale cannot prevent those members from having a say for long. I’m told by some activists that once those new members exert an influence, activists who believe in a centrist approach will be vastly outnumbered, which sets up the prospect of a Scottish Labour Party, already detached from the electorate, moving further away.

There are those in Scottish Labour who believe that they should match the SNP’s rhetoric (which is left of its policies) with a real “old Labour” message. Once the Corbynistas are given a say, that belief will spill over into action that will cause the party – and Dugdale – yet more misery.

The SNP has had some rocky moments in recent months. Police investigations into two MPs have dented the nationalists’ image.

But with Labour in crisis, heading for defeat, and about to lurch further left, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon can rest assured that her party’s dominance of Scottish politics is all but assured for years to come.